MICHAEL CLIFFORD: What’s going on up in the Áras Michael D?

Wherefore the halos, oh how they slip so lightly.

What’s going on up in the Áras? That question kept zipping around my head as I tucked into the porridge, one morning last week. Then, if the Áras wasn’t bad enough, I saw something that nearly killed me. Having devoured my copy of the Irish Examiner, I had turned to the Irish Times and came within a whisker of choking on oats. Buried deep in the “paper of record’s” letters page was a missive that sent me into convulsions of shock.

But, first, Michael D and the courtiers in the Park. It emerged last week that the President’s chief adviser, Mary van Lieshout, has left under circumstances that are far from clear. The Sunday Times reported that the issue was a tiff straight out of the royal court of an ancient European monarch. Apparently, the chief adviser was peeved that her access to the king, sorry, President, was impeded by a junior functionary wielding excessive power.

This gent, Kevin McCarthy, is bestowed with the title executive assistant, and ascended to his role having served as a driver in the last election.

Two days after the story broke, Ms van Lieshout attempted to kill it by issuing a statement that she had left on amicable terms.

Really? Just one year into the job, after acquiring it at an enhanced rate, she suddenly decided it wasn’t for her? The affair did give a brief glimpse of the presidency. We have the public Michael D, who churns out well-sculpted speeches decrying materialism, neo-liberalism, and all the evils that drove the ship of state onto the rocks.

In broad terms, his position chimes with the public’s view. He rails against the greed that landed us in the mire. Here’s a little taster, from a recent speech of his, about constructing an ethical economy, instead of one designed for hucksters.

“The present speaker believes that economic facts can be approached from another viewpoint; they are also, to a degree that I will not attempt to define, a matter of opinion … The level of wages depends on a fundamental standard that corresponds to the minimum of resources necessary for a man to live.

“But this standard is determined, in every era, by opinion. What yesterday was considered to be a sufficient minimum no longer satisfies the requirements of moral conscience today.”

OK, you got that? “The level of wages depends on a fundamental standard that corresponds to the minimum resources necessary for a man to live.”

President Higgins’ necessities extend to a salary of €250,000, plus room and board in the Áras, in a country dragging itself back from the abyss of bankruptcy.

On election, he decided his office required two extra advisers, albeit within the same budget. Yet the quality of advice he required demanded that salary caps be broken for both his chief adviser and his press officer.

And, now, his chief adviser, whose talents were deemed so vital, has hot-footed it out of the Áras.

It’s difficult to know what the president’s “requirements of moral conscience today” add up to? He’s well able to talk the talk, but he obviously has no intention of walking the walk.

Bad and all as such thoughts were for the breakfast, the letter in the Times nearly did for me.

It consisted of a missive from nine self-described “young, female training doctors” from the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin’s Holles Street. They are “appalled at the manner in which Dr Rhona Mahony was vilified in the press over the last week”. Ms Mahony was the focus of much attention when it emerged that she was one of a number of health managers reported to have received top-up payments.

The baby-docs said: “The media should not have camped out outside her home (we acknowledge this did not involve the Irish Times).”

And then this: “Is Ireland still deeply uncomfortable with women filling senior management positions?” But this beat all. “She is a major reason why we still work in the Irish health service, when our medical-school classmates are now working abroad.”

Are these baby-docs for real? First of all, the media issue. Baby-docs, when you venture out in the world, you will encounter the sad reality that not everybody maintains acceptable standards.

This applies to elements of the media as much as it does to other sectors, including medicine. But propagating the notion that “the media” — with the pompous exception of the Irish Times — camped outside the Mahony home is unbecoming of “young, female training doctors”, who presumably possess critical faculties in good working order.

As for the substantive issue, a few home truths wouldn’t go astray. Prior to the recent controversy about top-up payments, Ms Mahony had a high media profile. She was photographed for the Sunday Independent magazine. She gave numerous interviews. She was on the Late, Late Show. She was extremely comfortable in the media spotlight.

Dear baby-docs, believe it or not, the spotlight shone on her, not because Ireland is “deeply uncomfortable with women filling senior management positions”, but because it was celebrating her elevation.

Then, her halo was suddenly loosened, as news trickled out about top-up payments for well-paid health managers. It initially appears that she was given a top-up payment of €45,000, in addition to her salary of €236,000, as master of Holles Street. A few in the media overstepped the mark in pursuing her and were wrong to do so. But the spotlight on Ms Mahony was entirely to be expected, in light of her high profile.

That’s the nature of the beast and it has nothing to do with standards.

Ms Mahony disputed the top-up story, issuing a statement through a PR firm, saying that the 45 grand “paid to me, and labelled by the media as a ‘top-up’, is in respect of professional fees from private patients attending the National Maternity Hospital”.

That sounds like the private element of her practice, but that was not how it was reported by the hospital to the HSE. Ms Mahony chose not to elaborate.

A few days later, it turned out that she, and four of her colleagues, run a clinic adjoining Holles Street, which performs ultrasounds on clients referred from the hospital.

This is a very different picture to that painted in Ms Mahony’s brief statement.

On Thursday, the HSE’s Tony O’Brien told an Oireachtas committee that the executive would investigate the clinic’s links with the hospital.

None of these matters are sinister, but, at a time when thousands are losing medical cards, and services are cut to the bone, public interest demands transparency.

If Ms Mahony, or the baby-docs, on her behalf, wish to portray what has unfolded as “vilification”, then that reflects their perspective of the world rather than any objective assessment. By the way, baby-docs, thank you so much for staying in the country, after we subsidised your expensive training. You’re just too kind.

In the meantime, careful with those halos.

They slip so easily in these turbulent times.


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